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Of Virtue and Liberty

Once upon a time religions were categorized or classified as either Apollonian or Dionysian. The Apollonian faiths were more cerebral, focused on knowledge, poetry, and the arts. Dionysian faiths were more earthy and visceral, focusing praise, celebration, fellowship. Think in terms of Episcopalians and any of the many Charismatic churches. In a variety of ways, western systems of government can be classified in just such a fashion.

Today, it is commonly believed that our government is patterned on the democratic Greek city states. The Greeks were the Apollonians of government. This is cerebral man, theoretical government. Think in terms of the polis, policy, police, and of course, our word politics. We too often forget the very real impact of the Romans on our system of government. From Rome we get civility, citizen, civilization – being civic minded. Central to Roman government was our visceral man – love of country forged a Roman’s perspective on citizenship. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. One can see the root for our word patriot in that Latin sentence.

Perhaps the most fascinating and one of the more important features of the Roman Republic was its notion of the auctoritas. Almost ancestor worship, its body of “something more than advice but less than law” was foundational to the moral base of Rome’s august body known as the Senate. For so many in the West throughout our history since Rome, it was Rome’s moral anchor, its virtue that made such wide spread freedom possible. Our founding fathers managed to make a splendid blend of both practices. Whether it is in the terms of gods or governments, leaving out either the mind or emotion leads to an imbalance in practice.

Long way round to the topic of virtue, but I wanted to tie cerebral man to visceral man. Leaving gods and governments aside for the moment, the kind of virtues I want to talk about are the natural or cardinal virtues. Before enumerating these, a moderately simple definition of virtue is in order. Merriam Webster’s definition of virtue:

1 a : conformity to a standard of right : morality b : a particular moral excellence
2 pl: an order of angels see celestial hierarchy
3 : a beneficial quality or power of a thing
4 : manly strength or courage : valor
5 : a commendable quality or trait : merit
6 : a capacity to act : potency
7 : chastity esp. in a woman

Though all of these definitions are useful, the first is obviously the one I want to tinker with when it comes to the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. First, according to Britannica, the word cardinal is from a Latin word meaning “hinge,” because on these four virtues “all lesser attitudes hinge.” Second, it would be easy to spend pages on each of these four virtues, but I’ll leave that to you 😉 What I’m interested in here is a reasonable and concise definition of each of these cardinal or secular virtues. Again from Merriam Webster’s:


1: the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason
2: sagacity or shrewdness in the management of affairs
3: skill and good judgment in the use of resources
4: caution or circumspection as to danger or risk


1: moderation in action, thought, or feeling: restraint
2: habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions


strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage


1 a : the maintenance or administration of what is just esp. by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments b : judge c : the administration of law ; esp.: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity
2 a : the quality of being just b  (1): the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action (2): conformity to this principle or ideal : righteousness c : the quality of conforming to law
3 : conformity to truth, fact, or reason : correctness

As citizens, I believe it’s easy to see the value in each of these virtues to our right action, to our beliefs, to our shared responsibilities. These are the primary elements in a moral suspension that provides our liberty. I believe the failure of these virtues results in a tyranny of some sort. I ran across a quote by Abraham Lincoln in a short speech he gave in Baltimore, Maryland in 1864. The entire speech is definitely worth the read because it speaks directly to slavery and the analogy of the wolf and sheep is a sound one. I’m going to include a little more in my rendering than did Mark Levin on the dust jacket of his new book Liberty and Tyranny. So then, in closing:

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name – liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names – liberty and tyranny.

update – The second and third paragraphs contain a collection of ideas expressed in Politics: A Very Short Introduction and verified in a few other text books from college. As for the linked book, I think it’s an excellent little essay by Kenneth Minogue and well worth the read! It’s been awhile since I’ve read either the book or texts from college – but I’ve pretty decent  notes.


  1. August 13th, 2009 at 16:26 | #1

    Excellent post. I will recommend it to others.

    I would argue that the biggest failing of the Current Administration is a lack of Temperance, followed closely by their lack of Justice. Our founding fathers did a remarkable job of setting up a system that almost (it is being tested right now) guaranteed a Temperate Government. Our nation started defining Liberty as having a government only as the necessary evil required to accomplish those things that the individuals could not do themselves. That left individuals at their Liberty to do all other things not retained/controlled by the government. Being Temperate by design, the government has changed slowly but steadily to change the definition of Liberty to one where individual’s lives are managed, but not yet controlled, by our government.

    My fear is that an intemperate government will rapidly push us to a state where our lives are not just managed by our government but controlled by same. This, for me, is the end of individual Liberty. I wonder if we have the Fortitude, as a nation, to resist this loss of Liberty and to return our nation to a system of government more akin to the one created in the late 18th century.


  2. August 13th, 2009 at 18:34 | #2

    Thanks Tom! I’ve definitely noticed a few more visitors coming round 😀 It’s nice to get a few more emails bouncing other ideas across my screen and challenging the ideas I’ve put up.

    I agree with your comments on our government – and I definitely worry about whether our citizens have the moral courage to stand and “resist this loss of liberty.” On the other hand, I think I tend to worry about what’s being taught to our children. There was so very little citizenship taught (let alone encouraged) that I bored my poor children to tears with dinner talks on our duties as citizens, and what should be the limits of government intrusion on our liberties.

    I’ve found, that like my paternal Grandfather and maternal Grandmother, I’m angry and distressed by the degeneration of American education. It is insidiously incremental, but no less devasting in its effects – turning our contrymen into what both the left and right laughingly call “sheeple.”

    Looking forward to a continuing conversation,

  3. August 14th, 2009 at 16:00 | #3

    Shortly after joining the Rotary Club of San Jose California in 1977, I heard a speaker who claimed that his entire life had been changed by a lesson in high school. He told the story of a Civics Class teacher who made the class both memorize and understand the Oath of the Athenian Youth. Ernie Renzel (the speaker) was Mayor of San Jose in 1945 and 46. The man he replaced had thought building an airport in town was a folly beyond belief. Ernie bought an option (personally) on a property that was suitable for the job and after being elected offered it to the town at no profit to himself. His foresight caused San Jose to have an airport, without which, it would never have become the capitol of Silicon Valley. Today, San Jose is the 10th largest city in the country. After WWII it was just a market center for a large farm based community.
    How many folks do you know today who would risk a significant portion of their wealth to do something like that for their community? Here is the Oath:


    “We will never bring disgrace to this, our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in ranks.

    We will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many;

    We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect and reverence in those above us who are prone to annul or to set them at naught;

    We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this city not less but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

  4. August 14th, 2009 at 19:44 | #4

    @tom Vail I LIKE that – sure do hope our schools start recognizing the value in a good government/civics teacher! I was more or less one of the “turn on drop out” kids. Thanks to the military I managed to pick up some valuable lessons along the way 😀 …along with an education.

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